In March of 2020, I received a call at night from my father across the ocean in southeastern Europe. He had been sick for three days with a temperature of 100.4 degrees F.
“So, what do you think about this new virus?” he asked me while continuing to cough loudly. The sound of his cough worried me since he had been diagnosed with heart failure and asthma, but I could not take care of him. I was too far away, working on my PhD and afraid that if I went home, the borders would close, leaving me unable to continue my studies. What surprised me at that moment was his curiosity. Despite how poorly he felt, he flooded me with many eager questions, all while I tried to hide the worry in my voice. Immediately we started to talk about viruses and recent genetic discoveries. Our conversation lasted until 4:00 am. After the talk, I was left with a renewed hope that he would get better and that the future would be better as well.
It has been more than a year since the first outbreak of COVID-19. The world came to a halt. Humanity came face to face with a new enemy that attacked our immune systems where they were the most vulnerable. From Wuhan, China, where everything started, the COVID-19 virus spread throughout the entire globe and showed us that our countries are not isolated and that there is a need to build bridges with effective and transparent communication to prevent other pandemics.
Despite the closed borders, scientists from across the globe ignited the flame of collaboration to bring us the latest data about the COVID-19 pandemic. Soon, Chinese researchers made the first draft of the COVID-19 viral genome open to the public, and other researchers continued with scientific papers, online meetings, and webinars. I attended some of these online meetings, which were easy, free to access, and brought together experts from different backgrounds such as journalism, public health, virology, etc. This helped the world better understand the data collected about COVID-19 infections in a time when uncertainty was being generated from the mixed messages of government and health leadership.
Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic showed us that we need to engage with policymakers and stakeholders. However, in many cases, the communication of scientific information and the subsequent translation into policies proved to be challenging. Throughout this process, scientists insisted on continuing to communicate their results and pushing policymakers to take immediate preventive actions.
Scientists and policymakers worked together to produce a message that could be understood by the general public with the goal of increasing awareness and consequently reducing the spread of the virus. This made me realize how essential these collaborations are in addressing public health crises and how we can be a voice by participating actively and advocating for better policies.
Moreover, I was impressed by how social media became a great tool for scientists to share their expertise. A great example of science communication in the context of COVID-19 was the use of the idea of “flattening the curve,” which underwent the transformation from an epidemiological chart curve to a simple and important message to take basic precautions such as social distancing and washing hands. The message was easy to understand and as a result, was shared worldwide. This increased the understanding and therefore the trust the general public had in science, and through social media, the general audience was able to participate in discussions with experts and had the opportunity to ask questions.
However, the necessarily rapid dissemination of information introduced the public to the dynamic and self-corrective nature of scientific research. One example was the confusion around the use of masks. The CDC and WHO didn’t immediately recommend using masks, as it was not clear whether COVID-19 spread through droplets. When it became clear that the virus was airborne, they changed their recommendation. This quick shift gave people concerns and doubts, especially those unfamiliar with how research is conducted.
These doubts, together with misinformation, showed that social media can be a double-edged sword. As a result of this misunderstanding and poor communication, many countries are still having difficulties with implementing the use of masks, social distancing, and vaccinations. This made me carefully consider how we can best share scientific information with the public in a way that will reduce fear and anxiety during public crises.
The greatest lesson that I learned regarding the essential role of science communication and its impact was taught to me by Dr. Anthony Fauci. He represents an excellent model of a global scientist. In every communication with the media, he is precise, empathetic, and avoids political influence. In every interview, Dr. Fauci follows the same formula, explaining what is known and what is not known. He brings the audience to his central message, which is to trust science. With these strategies, he won the hearts of many people and built trust between the general public and scientific institutions. Dr. Fauci’s example during the pandemic made me reflect on the importance of using understandable and transparent language, not only in scientific journals but also in communication with the general public. By speaking with respect and empathy to those who are not in science, we can help mend their relationship with the institution designed to help them.
Dr. Fauci has said, “I believe I have a personal responsibility to make a positive impact on society.” I will add to the above that it is not only his responsibility but that of every scientist. Only when we all take on this challenge, through effective communication and collaboration, can we build a healthier society.
As a former public health worker who is currently working in a research lab doing my PhD in Cell and Molecular Biology, I was excited to be eligible to get the COVID-19 vaccine. So, on a cold day in February, with tears of joy, I called my father. “Dad, I finally got the first shot of the Moderna vaccine!” He was as happy as I was. We started to talk about the history of important vaccines and how they have impacted our lives. Even though my father doesn’t have a medical background, we both understand the importance of vaccines as part of an effective strategy to improve public health.
- Matta, G. Science communication as a preventative tool in the COVID19 pandemic. Humanit Soc Sci Commun 7, 159 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1057/s41599-020-00645-1
- Fauci A. A Goal of Service to Humankind (2005). https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=4761448
- Ruao T., Silva S., The “Flatten the Curve”, Metaphor in COVID-19 Public (2020) https://doi.org/10.21814/uminho.ed.46.9
About the Author:
Rinalda Proko is a PhD candidate studying the role of the cytoskeleton in controlling the polarized growth of filamentous fungi with a particular focus on the cellular control of septin organization in M. oryzae in Martin Egan’s lab at the University of Arkansas. She also holds the position of president of the Student Organization of Cellular and Molecular Biology, which includes students from 4 colleges and 17 different departments at the University of Arkansas and a member of the Postdoctoral and Student Committee (COMPASS) on the American Cell Biology Association (ASCB). Winner of the Public Award in the "3 Minutes Thesis" competition at the University of Arkansas and winner of second place in the "Elevator pitch," the annual national competition of the ASCB in 2019. She completed her bachelor's degree in Biology and master's degree in Molecular Biology at the University of Tirana, Albania. From 2014-2017, she worked as a molecular biologist at the Institute of Public Health in the Infectious Disease Control Department in Tirana, with a special focus on viral disease monitoring and biosecurity risk assessment. Twitter: @r_proko Email: firstname.lastname@example.org